Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 26th October 2014
26 October 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
In response to the lawyer's question, Jesus replies, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind'. Here at the Abbey we take this teaching of our Lord most seriously, both personally within our individual discipleship, and corporately within our common acts of worship.
Today the Abbey choir is in the USA, and it's a great pleasure to welcome back again the Adult Choir of St John the Divine, Kennington, here in London. This morning I wish to focus the sermon upon how our worship, loving God with heart, soul, and mind, is enhanced through liturgical music. Most music in our culture today is a performance that is intended to entertain, and we in turn applaud. But in worship, music is played and sung for an audience of one: the Creator of heaven and earth. So let us take a moment to reflect upon that intimate relationship between divine love and music; the importance of music to worship in expressing God's love.
When we consider the place of music, the key question is not 'what are we going to do with our music?' but rather 'what can God do in and through our music?' If we cast our minds back over the centuries, we soon see that the Christian religion and music have gone hand in hand together from the days of Gregorian plainchant to Oliver Messiaen. Even the Protestant Karl Barth admitted there is music in heaven. He said, 'When the angels sing for God, they sing Bach; when they sing for themselves, they sing Mozart'. When we think on the great church masses (indeed the music of Palestrina and Duruflé this morning) it is not difficult to recognise that music does indeed have its own ecstasy.
Sometimes we have religious and musical ecstasy combined as in that 'glance of God' section in The Dream of Gerontius. There is no doubt that God can do incredible things through the place of music in worship. But it also means that music in worship must never be an end in itself. The ultimate purpose of music in worship is to glorify God and reveal his love: not to be tempted to highlight the virtuosity of the musicians, or the stunning arrangements, or even the subtlety of the improvisations. It means that while we should always pursue the highest possible standards in church music, in the last resort it is more important that our music is transparent to God, a vehicle of the Holy Spirit.
To this end, it is worth reminding ourselves that the Holy Spirit is given to us in order that we might be transformed into the likeness of Christ, and through him, might come to love God with all our hearts and with all our souls and with all our minds. Such transformation into the likeness of Christ can take many different forms and can be found in many different ways. Alexander Pope complained that many people only go to church to hear the music. I don't think he should really have complained, because music is the direct presentation of what worship is. I say this because music is the representation in sound of the features of the universe which God created.
When we hear harmony, we sense through the ear those relations of number and proportion that resound throughout all time and space. Arthur Schopenhauer put this better than anybody when he wrote, 'Music is the soul of the drama or liturgy. It expresses the true nature of the actions and words and makes us immediately acquainted with the innermost soul of the events…music does not express this or that particular affliction, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety, merriment, or peace of mind; but& affliction, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety, merriment, and peace of mind as they are in themselves.'
We learn that worship is not about trying to break through to a distant God 'out there'; it's about God sending the Spirit of his Son into our hearts so that we can fully love him with all our being. Music in worship needs to be caught up in this divine love: for music is one of the many ways in which the Spirit binds us ever closer to the love of Christ so that through him we can be led into a deeper obedience and trust of the Father.
In worship there needs to be a sense—as Martin Luther put it—that 'we have a brother in heaven'. Jesus has stood where we stand, and we do well to recall again how God uses our weakness to make us strong in faith and love. This facet of worship which takes our fallen humanity seriously cannot be ignored, and certainly is not ignored in our music. I think it goes without saying that we all recognise the fact that music in worship plays a fundamental role in revealing God's love.
At a very basic level, when a hymn is addressed directly to God (as later we shall sing 'Father, hear the prayer we offer') we find it is also a means of encouraging each other in our worship. At a corporate level, musicians are very well aware that music in worship is not about individual or group performance or asserting power over others, it is all about enabling all to worship in spirit, love and truth. Music is important, liturgy is important, preaching is important, but ultimately we are redeemed not by the absorption of ideas or settings but rather by becoming members of Christ, that is, by coming into a fresh relation with the living Christ and thus a fresh relation with each other. I don't believe it is a question of old or new but rather a mind-set which repeatedly, and gently questions how the way we do things is somehow enabling that encounter.
We all know that music and liturgy are hugely helpful but ultimately they can't deliver that encounter on their own for only God can do that. Our worship therefore should be an encounter with Christ through that highly specific cluster of events of life and of death and of resurrection. Without the additional dimension and enhancement of music, the danger is that this encounter can be reduced to a rather generalised, all-embracing spirituality.
I draw to a close with one note of caution and one of encouragement. Firstly, the note of caution: Mindful of all the great benefits that music brings, we do well to remember that sublime choral music in worship is not ultimately here to make us feel better, or to make us feel spiritual, or to relax us and take our stress away. All that would be very nice but that is not actually what the gospel is about. The gospel reminds us that we are profoundly at odds with ourselves because we all need transformation; we all need to absorb God's love into our very beings and be made whole in him.
And then the note of encouragement: There is so much delightful and spine-chilling music here on earth that we can be sure that there is music in heaven. The late-sixteenth- early-seventeenth-century metaphysical poet John Donne described heaven as a place where there is neither noise nor silence, 'but one equal music'. 'We are the music while the music lasts', says TS Eliot; and thank God the music lasts forever.